Bagmati River (Japan, 2022) [OAFF 2022]

Films about characters processing grief are common and are usually totally fictional. A memorable romance between Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze’s characters was sustained via the supernatural in Jerry Zucker’s Ghost (1990), while Charlotte Rampling’s frosty academic couldn’t shake the spectre of her missing husband in Francois Ozon’s Under the Sand (2000), and Machiko Ono’s care-home worker was taken deep into the Mourning Forest (2007) by Naomi Kawase. Are films that are made to process grief as equally plentiful? Bagmati River, a short film by Yusaku Matsumoto, is one such work and it is based on reality.

The genesis of the film lies in the friendship between Matsumoto and a mountain climber named Nobukazu Kuriki. It began when Kuriki supported the release of Matsumoto’s debut feature Noise (2017), then recruited the director to make a documentary about his exploits in Nepal. However, when Kuriki died during his descent from Mount Everest, Matsumoto was left with profound lessons, one being the dangers of the mountains – Matsumoto himself experienced altitude sickness while filming – and the other in gaining an appreciation of the spiritual and physical aspects of Nepal from Kuriki’s influence. With Bagmati River, Matsumoto reflects his experiences and learns to let go of his friend through the journey, both spiritual and physical, of the main character.

Said main character is Natsuki (Junko Abe) who has travelled from Tokyo to Nepal in search of her missing brother Kenji (Kenji Kohashi) after receiving an anonymous postcard with a picture of Mount Everest printed on the back. Pushed to find some trace of a sibling she separated with a decade ago, she attempts to climb the mountain herself.

Details such as her background and what preparations she took are not mentioned in the film and Kenji’s disappearance is done by drive-by exposition of news reports. Instead, the focus is on sensory overload as we watch Natsuki venture into the Nepalese town of Lukla and then embark up the foothills of Everest.

Abe’s highly physical performance is the driver of the film as she moves with a sad desperation expressed through her slipping through the narrow streets of Lukla Town with a look of uncertainty on her face, asking for help to look for her brother with a movingly plaintive call of “I want to see him again,” as her reason. It all kicks into high gear in the wilderness as we witness her forging and, eventually, stumbling up the mountain. The sight of her physical exertion and the sound of her laboured breathing amidst the constant whipping winds gets across how strenuous and potentially deadly her journey is and thus the grief pushing her. 

Helping accentuate her emotions and the effects of the environment, audio and visual elements are amped up to the max as the sounds lash out from the speakers while the locations are captured in magnificent widescreen vistas shot from vertiginous heights that beg to be seen on a big screen. Director of photography Kentaro Kishi and Matsumoto shoot the mountains with an eye of expressing the sublime nature of the mountains, how overwhelming they are and how humans are just a small part of them as expressed through many long shots of the landscape and Natsuki disappearing into the terrain. These elements and the film’s brevity allow the story to thread the needle when it comes to spirituality.

With the focus lying heavily on Abe’s performance and the sensory aspects of the strain of the ascent being accentuated to the point that it is almost visceral, we are naturally primed for a segue into the spiritual as the overwhelming nature of Natsuki’s ordeal builds.

Poetic imagery of nature and of Kenji suggests the oneiric pull that both the location and his memory have on Natsuki. Although not expounded upon too much, Hinduism is brought into play as the character starts to see human mortality as natural and the cycle of birth and death being linked intimately with the environment. Thus, her journey into the danger of the mountains brings Natsuki closer to acceptance of her loss without ever totally feeling trite and the film’s short length works to bring a quick close to things to elide over the trickier elements of the story.

Bagmati River works overall because of an appreciation of the landscape, which is not only brought out in the aural and visual aspects, but also through Abe’s performance, which movingly relays her character’s emotional journey and netted her a Housen Short Film Award Special Mention at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022. Matsumoto has succeeded in saying goodbye to his friend by channeling experiences of the environment and offering feelings of threat, sadness, and a touch of spirituality, all while making a film that looks and sounds impressive.

Bagmati River was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 12 and 15.